Alleviate vs. Relieve: When a Synonym Isn’t
I recently came across the inappropriate use of alleviate in a mystery novel:
the arrest of George Shulan alleviated me from any further duty towards Mrs. Trevelyan; I was free to leave… –Lack of Temperance, Anna Loan-Wilsey, Kensington Books (2012), p. 138.
The writer’s meaning is that the speaker has been freed from an obligation. She has been relieved of a duty. I’m willing to bet that the author wrote either relieved or freed in the first draft and that alleviated slipped in during revision.
I say this because both relief and free occur in the same paragraph from which the example is taken. The writer was doing what we all do in revision: seeking to avoid repetition of the same or similar words in close proximity.
Pretend that you are the writer. In rereading the paragraph, you notice the following:
Any relief I might’ve felt was negated by the unresolved mystery…
the arrest of George Shulan relieved me from any further duty
why did I feel regret instead of relief?
Uh-oh! Two reliefs and a relieved in the same paragraph. You would reach for the dictionary to find a synonym for “relieve” and discover “alleviate.” You are working to meet a deadline, so you keep going without further thought. Understandable, but deadly to your credibility as a professional writer.
Synonym lists are great tools, but they can be the source of error to the unwary.
Although alleviate can be used as a synonym for relieve in some contexts, the two are not invariably interchangeable.
Like alleviate, relieve can mean “to ease or mitigate (pain, distress, or difficulty); to make (a condition) less burdensome.”
Relieve can also mean ‘to free or clear (a person) of or from an obligation.”
Alleviate, on the other hand, is pretty much limited to one meaning, “to make (pain, suffering, etc.) less severe.”
With little change in meaning, one can say either, This medicine alleviates arthritis pain, or, This medicine relieves arthritis pain.
Restating Lincoln freed the slaves as, Lincoln alleviated the slaves, however, is not an option.
Tip: Before using a synonym from a list, look the synonym up in a dictionary to verify that it means the same thing as the word you are replacing.
A Google search reveals that a great many bloggers and commenters are confused about the meaning of alleviate. It’s used incorrectly in each of the following examples:
• Man with spinal cord disorder alleviated with Homeopathy
• An alleged victim…completely alleviated me of absolutely any guilt at his deposition
• This solution alleviated me of the strict rules of the dorms…
• Your team… alleviated me having to research my paperwork.
• It’s alleviated me having to put pen to paper
Alleviate is a transitive verb whose object will be a condition or a problem–not a human being. A disorder may be alleviated, but not a man. A victim may “absolve” a person of guilt, but not “alleviate” him of it.
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